THE PUPPET PARADISE OF STEVE AXTELL
By Mark Sawicki
Many years have passed since I was able to recapture that innocent sense of wonder seen only in wide-eyed children experiencing a magical creature for the first time. It all came back to me when I paid a visit to puppet and magic company Axtell Expressions of Ventura, Ca. Steve Axtell, founded the firm and began as most of us, first as a fan then as a hobbyist and finally becoming a professional. In Steve’s case Muppet creator Jim Henson inspired him.
Pictured above: Steve Axtell at 16 years old with his stable of original characters inspired by Jim Henson. Left to Right (Dwight D. Duck, Woody, Fancy Flamingo, Rusty, Herbie the Mouse.)
Steve sold his first puppet when he was 15 years old, a bright orange fur Fox puppet. After that, it became all puppets, all the time. Steve became a master puppet maker and a sought after puppet performance artist as well. As time passed, his creations became much in demand and Axtell Expressions was born. While Steve brought joy and wonder to hundreds of children as a performer, his fabulous creations, now in the hands of other artists continue to bring happiness to untold thousands all over the world, including celebrities such as Shaq and America's Got Talent winner, Terry Fator.
Pictured above: Terry Fator with his puppet Kani Kapila, fabricated by Steve Axtell. (Click for video of Terry & Kani: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbkMkU_SbBI)
THE MAGIC DRAWING BOARD
Axtell holds 6 patents on a variety of performance tools and puppet gear such as The Magic Drawing Board. Steve gave me a hilarious demo of the device that I found brilliant in its simplicity and cleverness. As a performer Axtell focuses on the fundamentals of the entertainment arts. Techniques and materials have their place but the presentation and performance used to capture the imagination of an audience is what is most important. This is what makes an Axtell Expressions puppet very special indeed.
Pictured above: Steve Axtell's "Magic Drawing Board," a magic trick designed and built by Steve Axtell. Click HERE to see the board in action.
AXTELL EXPRESSIONS, INC.
I was taken on a tour of the shop and Steve introduced me to the entire crew with great warmth and respect. Steve’s wife Suzi is vice president and hails from the fashion industry; Jose Cruz is the products manager; John Schmeling works the animatronics department; Greg Jackson is the studio manager (the company does their own voice recording for the characters); Theresa Camarillo handles customer service, and Kathy Fey keeps the books. These talented folks and a host of top-notch artists make up the company.
A recent Brooks documentary shows Steve and the Axtell team at work. Check it out HERE!
Pictured above: The Axtell Expressions crew, LEFT to RIGHT: FRONT ROW: Jessica Axtell-Mingo & Theresa Camarillo (customer service assistant & manager) Chella & Philis (Puppet Assembly) Greg Jackson (Studio Production, AxTrax, MagicTrax), Christina, Jose, Dora (Puppet Assembly & airbrushing) BACK ROW: Wesley Gonzalez & Eric Martyn (Animatronic Technicians) Suzi Axtell (Vice President), Mark Heurng (Tech Assistant), Steve Axtell (CEO & Creative Director), Kathy Fey (Bookkeeper), John Schmeling (Tech Dept Manager), Jose Cruz (Production Manager)
THE P-P-PLATYPUS SONG
Steve has become something of a YouTube sensation due to his video--several years old now, but just as addictive and impossible to get out of your head--which features Steve's exceptional ventriloquistic talents applied to an adorable Platypus of his own design. The Platypus takes the lead on the song, written by Steve, with interstitial commentary and puppeteering by Steve. The fuzzy little monotreme has been viewed to date over 2 MILLION times. Have a look for yourself HERE.
Pictured Above: Steve Axtell's viral sensation, the P-P-Platypus with a Platypus puppet of its own!
TALKING TREES, SMOKING DRAGONS & A SENSE OF WONDER
The team proudly demonstrated a fabulous animatronic talking bird manipulated with a tiny controller that fits in the palm of your hand. I saw other characters such as a dragon that blows smoke and a talking tree. I sat down in front of the sleeping tree as it waited for its cue. The characters are never “dead” but stay in live mode in-between performances. In the tree’s case the eyelids would quiver slightly along with the lips as a snoring sound could be heard. It was very magical and mysterious and I found myself feeling like I was 5 years old again, jaw agape in anxious anticipation of what was going to happen next. And then…….the tree woke up, came to life and sang and shook, winked and blinked, and told the most wonderful stories of magical lands of far away. This marvelous tree character was made for a library exhibit to amuse and educate young children. While many of us make monsters, meant to thrill, scare and horrify, we must also remember that there is always a place for gentle talking trees as well.
Pictured above: one of Steve Axtell's talking trees, featuring a companian Toucan!
Thanks to Steve and company the joy and happiness brought forth from their puppet creations help make the world a better place. Be sure to check out their site at: http://www.axtell.com/
- Mark Sawicki
Pictured above: The author, SWSCA instructor, Mark Sawicki (right) with Steve Axtell (left) and a very friendly, gentle, animatronic tree (middle).
CLICK THE IMAGE AT THE TOP OF THE PAGE to watch Ross Minkin's 2013 short documentary: "Steve Axtell behind the scenes at Axtell Expressions Inc.," (©Ross Minkin 2013)
CLICK here to see Mark's lesson on Stop-Motion Character Performance and Rear Projection.
CLICK here to see Mark's lesson on Mirror-Magic - Visual Effects Using Reflections.